An Actor’s Worst Enemy is Tension | How to Avoid Tension When Acting
actor's worst enemy tension

Actor’s Worst Enemy: Tension

Written by on | Acting Tips

Actors have really been boxed into a corner with their work ethic. Most work tirelessly, borderline obsessively, on the role that they are cast in. Unfortunately, the majority of an actor’s career, in the early days at least, is spent outside of performance. Whether you’re in rehearsals for a production and you just can’t mine any deeper into the complex family history of ‘Fruit Vendor #4’, or whether you’ve been hit with a dry spell of auditions, sometimes an actor needs a little something-something to pull them out of their predicament. And yet I’m going to answer the question of “StageMilk, what do I do when I’m so uninspired and burnt out and have nothing to GIVE?” with an answer that requires yet more work.


Why is this work? Because doing it properly is HARD for people who are constantly on the go, constantly engrossed in their work. Because your passion is your work, and your work is your self, and your self is your product – it’s a messy tangle of knots.

We hold physical tension, mental tension, and emotional tension. Focus on one of these at a time, and get set for some Rest and Relaxation. It’s a crucial aspect of your homework. The lines between them blur, and sometimes relaxing physically will bring up some emotional tension, or maybe relaxing mentally suddenly makes those headaches go away.

The take-away is don’t get caught up wondering if the focus of your relaxation is correct or not. Wanting to be correct causes tension, and tension is the enemy. Shift the boundaries wherever you damn well please, maybe focus on relaxing your little toe for a whole day, however small you need to break down the pieces of tension you are holding, go for it. The only take away here is that you focus on one area at a time, and calm it right down. Maybe put it away entirely for the day.

“But I love acting and theatre and movies! That’s how I relax!” Not a good enough excuse. How many times has the stress of an audition driven you to wish you never started down this crazy path? (Never? Is that just me?) This kind of tension is linked to procrastination. You usually procrastinate over something that you actually love doing because of the fear that you’ll do a bad job. If you’re proven to be bad at the thing you love doing, your ego and your identity take a massive blow, so your brain is protecting you from that by pushing the task back, prolonging the inevitable. This is literally tension pulling you between the thing you want to do, and the fear of doing it. Caring too much is exhausting.

Hobbies and friends are great for switching off, but make sure it isn’t closely related to your work. The gym doesn’t count, singing doesn’t count. I’ll let you have macrame or surfing. For a double whammy of redirecting your passion and joy somewhere new to give it a break from caring SO MUCH about your acting, spend time doing macrame with a friend who hates it when you talk about acting. The important thing is to switch off deliberately. Scrolling Instagram or binging Netflix is a limbo state in which you’re kind of procrastinating your relaxation. Go out of your way to engage in something alien, and find something you are passionate about in even the tiniest way. That way, your identity isn’t so threatened by potentially doing a bad job at acting. This is crucial, because as we all know, Making Mistakes is Awesome.

Tension In Performance

Dealing away with tension in performance is critical in all genres, styles, and mediums of acting. There is never ever never a good way to be tense in performance, even if your character is in a tense situation. It’s your job as an actor to convey a sense of tension while being in complete control of your performance. Tension robs you of control, because you become less reactive and less able to respond with a natural, flexible, and readable response. This is because tension is part of the flight-or-fight response, and is actually closest to a rabbit in the headlights – aware of danger, aware of protecting yourself, and trapped in that moment of indecision. Tension can really get in the way of the clarity of your performance. It’s difficult to tell if the actor is tense or the character is tense, and then whether that tension is fear, rage, anxiety, or smitten-in-love. Make performing easier on yourself and do away with that tension in performance through a few simple pointers.

Vocal Warmup

Your voice work should be like working on your fitness – you do it every day, not just ten minutes before you run a marathon. Not only will maintaining your vocal fitness give you a stronger base to work from, with the added bonus of the nerves-buster of having confidence in your abilities, but you’ll also be chipping away at that underlying tension a little bit everyday. Good vocal technique includes healthy breathing, and the yogis are certainly on to something special here. Practicing deep diaphragm breathes helps the nervous system calm down. You can bet a rabbit in the headlights is holding its breath. Lying down and keeping an imaginary feather floating steadily atop a steady stream of your breath is a great exercise to encourage your breathing, and your whole nervous system, to relax.

Stay in Relationship

It’s far easier to obsess over your own physical state when you get stuck in your own head. Ever had that feeling that you don’t know what to do with your hands? That’s a key indicator that you’ve fallen out of relationship with your scene partner or your targets. If you can maintain your focus on something outside of yourself, the specifics of your movement and voice will take care of themselves. It’s a bit like breathing – very simple when you trust that it will regulate itself.

If you have trouble guiding your mind away from your tension in performance, you can think of your targets in terms of curiosity. This eliminates the intensity of words such as focus, and intention, whose implications can sometimes cause more tension as they are so strong and direct. It can be a smart way to circumvent that tension if you can – instead, explore and be curious about your partner and targets. Notice things in someone’s expression and let that inform the way in which you respond. Try to think of your targets in a different light – if you are delivering a monologue from a place of despair, experiment to seek out some hope within your words. These are much more layered concepts than “What am I doing with my feet? Do I usually stand so still?” and this will help you to pull yourself out of a tense moment immediately.

It’s a bit like meditation in the sense that you can sit down and light incense, settling in for a half hour session, but you can also tap into the concept during a split second of panic while your boss yells at you. You should be practising this regularly in rehearsal, so when it comes to your big opening night, you have an instant tension-buster that you can rely on at your fingertips.

Hopefully this article has inspired you to get to work on relaxation, and will help you relieve some of that tension in life and in performance. It’s a process, and just by working on a little bit every day means that you’ll have achieved a lot over the course of a year. Good luck!

About the Author

is a trained actor. She has worked professionally across film, TV and Theatre.

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